By Marc B. Garnick, M.D., Editor in Chief, Annual Report on Prostate Diseases
“What can I eat to reduce my risk of developing prostate cancer?” That’s one of the most common questions I hear from men concerned about prostate health. Undoubtedly, many hope to hear me rattle off a few foods guaranteed to shield them from disease. Although some foods have been linked with reduced risk of prostate cancer, the proof is lacking, at least for now.
What I can say — and there’s plenty of evidence to support this statement — is that a balanced, healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains remains your best bet. In fact, given that most men with prostate cancer now die with their disease, not from it, and that heart disease ranks as the nation’s No. 1 killer, sticking to a heart-healthy diet can help increase survival. Admittedly, you might want to tweak your eating plan to suit your particular tastes and medical concerns (allergies, for example), but Mom was right: fruits, vegetables, and that loaf of whole-wheat bread are good for you.
For a recent report from Harvard Health Publishing, I interviewed two outstanding dietitians — Stacy Kennedy, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Kathy McManus, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. An excerpt of that conversation, below, reflects great wisdom and advice for those concerned about diet and prostate health.
When people talk about eating for prostate health, what do they mean? Is there a specific “prostate diet,” or should people simply stick to a healthy diet in general?
KENNEDY: There is not a prostate diet per se. But there is a healthy diet. We can talk about diet for a whole host of diseases — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases — but there is a general healthy way of eating. That’s what we’re trying to promote. There can be some nuances. Evidence might show this, that, or the other may help decrease the risk of prostate cancer and other prostate disorders, but there really isn’t one thing or one prescribed diet. Patients should pay attention to their overall eating pattern, not a few particular foods.
Don’t fruits and vegetables help protect against disease?
KENNEDY: A plant-based diet, which includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also other things like nuts and seeds, whole grains, spices, and seasonings, has been shown to help decrease the risk of developing cancer when consumed consistently. Can we say that eating fruits and vegetables is certainly going to prevent an individual from getting prostate cancer? No. But it is one way of helping to reduce the risk. Fruits and vegetables are also beneficial because they contain lots of nutrients that are important for overall health and wellness.
How many servings of fruits and vegetables should someone eat in a day?
KENNEDY: Our recommendation is five to 10 servings a day.
Ten servings? That sounds like a tremendous amount.
KENNEDY: It does. It really does.
McMANUS: Well, let’s explain what we mean by a “serving.” A serving is a cup of leafy greens. So if you have a salad, you might have three cups, or three servings, of vegetables right there. A serving is also a half-cup of cooked vegetables or a medium-sized piece of fruit or a cup of berries.
KENNEDY: A medium-sized banana is actually a serving, too. So if you make a smoothie in the blender and put in a banana and a cup of blueberries, you’ve got two servings right there. Then you make a salad with two cups of greens, throw on a half-cup of carrots and a half-cup of peppers, and the number of servings is quickly going up.
McMANUS: The other important message here is that color is an indicator of phytonutrient content.
What are phytonutrients?
KENNEDY: Phytonutrients are plant-based nutrients. It’s really an umbrella term for all of the good things that are found in plant foods.
McMANUS: The deeper the color, the more vibrant the color, supposedly, the higher the phytonutrient content. For example, lettuce that’s deep green has more nutrients than iceberg lettuce.
KENNEDY: People have probably seen fancy words like “flavonoids” and “lycopene” when they read about fruits and vegetables. These are considered phytonutrients.
What about tomatoes? Some studies have shown that tomatoes, which contain the nutrient lycopene, might help prevent cancer; others have come to the opposite conclusion. What do you recommend to patients?
KENNEDY: Lycopene may or may not turn out to be a nutrient that is particularly important when it comes to prostate cancer. But there are many beneficial nutrients in tomatoes besides lycopene. You can get folic acid, you can get vitamin C. There are lots of good things in tomatoes. Because we know tomatoes are a healthy food for several reasons, I think it would make sense to try to include some cooked tomatoes and tomato sauce in your diet if you’re at risk for prostate cancer or if you’re a prostate cancer survivor. I don’t think we can conclusively say, “You’re definitely going to benefit from eating tomatoes,” but we can say that eating more tomatoes isn’t going to be harmful.
When it comes to making all of these healthy changes, how can our readers up their chances of success?
McMANUS: Start with small steps. Making too many changes at once can be difficult. Make one change and stick with it for a while. Then take another step. You’ll be more likely to succeed.
Posted Sept. 8, 2010